Kevin Ellis, Chair of PwC, said recently that the “age of presenteeism has been annihilated by the pandemic as employees work from home.” Similarly, at this year’s Orange Business Services European Digital Transformation Forum (EDTF) virtual event, Orange talked to a number of customers who outlined their beliefs that a significant proportion of employees currently working remotely will continue to work from home in the short-to-medium term. It is likely that working from home will become a central part of the new normal as we move forward: one customer even described a move toward “working from an office more out of need than out of habit.”
It’s something that I have often taken for granted in my time working for a global technology company like Orange: WFH or indeed working from anywhere has been part of our culture for some years. Having worked in virtual teams located all over the world in that time, we have developed the skills required to communicate and collaborate remotely. Addressing the WFH challenge from a technology point of view is in some ways the easy part: ensuring your teams have the soft skills required for remote communication and collaboration can present an additional challenge.
In WFH terms, things are definitely evolving. Scientists at Harvard have predicted that social distancing could continue until 2022, or perhaps at least until there is a widely-available vaccine. The government of Sweden has advised workers to carry on working from home for the Autumn at least, and potentially longer. In Denmark, a financial services industry survey found that there have been clear benefits in terms of customer satisfaction, employee engagement and productivity as staff have worked from home. At the end of June, the Danish government issued guidelines to employers as part of its re-opening plan. The guidelines state that “Amongst other things, employers must organize work in a way that ensures part of the workforce can continue to work from home.”
Working from home: the new normal
Prior to the emergency, more people worked from home in Sweden than any other country in Europe. There is now every chance that WFH will remain, at least to some extent, meaning employers will need to find sustainable ways to enable remote workers. That will mean bringing office functionality and practices into workers’ homes, rather than just a laptop on the kitchen table. Digital technology will be needed for companies to give workers a homeworking experience similar to that of the office and keep them productive. That experience could include whiteboard sessions on Zoom video calls, collaborating on a PowerPoint slide deck in real-time over Microsoft Teams, time management tools and project management tools like Trello.
The lockdown might have been enforced, but the past several months have made the business case for WFH. Worker productivity has not fallen – and in some cases it has increased. It has also had a positive impact on employee confidence and their ability to self-manage. Moving ahead, it is unlikely any one-size-fits-all approach will be applicable, both in terms of where and how we work.
Working from home: the next level
The next challenge to overcome is to make WFH as accepted and standard practice as the office has always been. During the recent crisis, employees have been able to make use of virtual private networks (VPNs), cloud, and unified communications and collaboration (UC&C) tools to keep them productive and working as close to normally as possible. But what comes next?
Orange has already spoken to companies that want our help to move beyond secure remote access to corporate networks and systems and past virtual desktops. They’re interested in shifting to better virtual work environments that will empower their remote workers with enhanced information flows, team working, genuine collaboration and innovation. One Orange customer, a global mining company, realized the benefits of remote working during the COVID-19 emergency, with Orange immediately enabling three hundred of the company’s employees to work from home instead of the usual five to ten. Another customer, a global electronics leader, had to shift 4,000 contact center agents to homeworking to keep serving its customers with no drop in performance. These examples show the potential for digital technology to enable different ways of working.
A software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) is a good starting point. The immediate shift to massive homeworking put strains on the network that it wasn’t used to. SD-WAN can give you the connectivity you need to support greater homeworking in terms of both scalability and performance. It can help the network maintain performance even as traffic patterns change frequently. With that extended perimeter goes a need for robust cybersecurity, of course.
As I mentioned, however, the technologies to make WFH a viable reality already exist, but the soft skills that our teams will need will require some careful supervision. By soft skills, I mean things like self-management, with employees needing to organize their time properly to remain effective. Communication is another essential area, and team leaders must ensure nobody is left out and every worker feels they are involved and valued. Self-sufficiency is a skill, too, with WFH often meaning employees might need to develop some hardware and security maintenance skills because the IT department isn’t there onsite.
The normalization of tech-enabled WFH
Collaboration over geographical distances requires reliable, real-time connections and a feeling of community and integration on the part of your workers. Cloud-based file sharing apps are invaluable for sharing documents between colleagues and will become more used. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools could become more commonplace and help automate mundane tasks to free up human workers to do what they do best – tasks that require creativity and human-to-human interaction. Virtual assistants can be used to track your meeting schedule for you or list all your sales opportunities in an instant.
Facebook recently unveiled a “mixed reality” workspace, designed to help its employees work from home in future. “We envision a dynamic virtual work environment anchored by genuine social presence. Next-generation devices would give people infinite workspaces with configurable virtual screens, whiteboards and other visionary tools. You could work alone or collaborate in a persistent meeting room with remote coworkers like you were all sharing the same physical space, and with all of the nuance of in-person conversation,” the company said in a blog post.
The tools exist to equip the home workspace to deliver as much productivity and familiarity as the office workspace and show that a transformation of the home workspace is possible now. While more waves of COVID-19 remain a possibility, enterprises should take this opportunity to accelerate their adoption.
Simon Ranyard is Managing Director for Nordics, UK and Ireland at Orange Business Services and is based in London, England. With 20 years' experience in ICT in sales functions, Simon is driving a revenue growth plan by focusing on the innovative services that Orange can bring to its customers and on continuously improving the way we work with them.
In his spare time, Simon is a keen cricket fan and enjoys supporting youth development in the game.